Sunday, August 29, 2004

Eternally Yours

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 27 August 2004 in Jay's Living Room (WGBH)

(Note: This review contains spoilers for those who can't guess how a 1939 film named "Eternally Yours" ends)

Whenever someone mentions to me that half the world's marriages end in divorce and shakes their head in sadness, I tend to respond with how that sounds pretty bad until you consider that the other half end in death. Divorce isn't such a bad alternative, if the two people want such vastly different things as Anita (Loretta Young) and Tony Arturo (David Niven) do in Eternally Yours.

There's a certain irony to Ms. Young's character, who marries a traveling magician and appears in his shows but at heart really wants to be a housewife in rural Connecticut. Arturo, of course, has no interest in any of that, so she eventually leaves him, flies to Reno, and gets a divorce. He finds out about this after she has remarried, and is now determined to win her back.

This being the type of movie it is, with little indication that the title is meant to be ironic, the outcome isn't really in question, just the methods. A Hollywood movie from 1939 doesn't seem likely to end with the suggestion that divorce can be good for people. And there is some amusing farce along the way, especially since Arturo's profession lends itself to theatricality and comedy when he starts messing up; Hugh Herbert is enjoyable as his valet, himself a former magician until arthritis started to hinder his ability to do slight-of-hand.

And perhaps this is how it should be. Love conquering all is a fine fantasy, and selling fantasy is what Hollywood has always done, especially as one goes back further and further in time. That said, selling fantasy is different from just expecting the audience to buy it. We see Arturo jump through hoops to try and get Anita back, but is there ever any real indication that he's changed, that he wants to settle down in the country and raise children with her? Not really; I believe he loves her, but that doesn't mean subordinating oneself to another's desires. It means working together so that both will be happy.

I had opportunity to think about this this weekend, at my brother's wedding. Not that the new Mr. and Mrs. Seaver are anything like these fictional characters or their relationship; my brother and his new wife are, if not actually as perfect for each other as they give every indication of being, at least in sync with each other's ambitions and everyday desires. With Anita and Tony, you can see that they're pointed in different directions from the start. No, it was the monk's sermon during the ceremony that got me thinking. Understand, I'm not comfortable with the injection of too much religion into weddings and funerals; I think it diminishes the actual human beings involved in an insulting way. But the parable he related made no sense; it told of a landowner who wanted his gardener to remove a fig tree that was sickly and hadn't produced fruit in years, but the gardener refused to give up, and begged his employer to let him redouble his efforts and keep the tree for another year. And then the story just stopped, and I'm thinking, what's the moral of this, that what looks like a problem with one thing may just be the person in charge doing a half-assed job (maybe it's the gardener, and not the tree, that should be removed), or is it a cautionary tale that yes, belief is good, but sometimes you can pour all your effort into something and get nothing out of it, all because you had too much pride to admit that it wasn't working? Given the context (a monk at a wedding), I figured neither of those explanations was likely.

How does this relate to Eternally Yours? Well, at various points, both Anita and Arturo put a lot of effort into their marriage, despite the fact that it means going against their own natures and sacrificing their own happiness. And sure, the movie concludes with a triumphant scene of the couple moving into their house in Connecticut. But I don't think it's cynical to wonder how happy they'll be in a year's time; it's just practical for someone not born until thirty-four years after this movie's release to think that maybe, just maybe, they'd be better off in the long term finding someone who truly fits rather than just staying in a marriage that will be under strain from the start.

No comments: